Maybe it’s like this everywhere, but, living in California, you can’t escape the state’s rich and colorful history, and the promise of opportunities that has brought waves of immigrants from across the country and the world. If the American Dream exists as an idea beyond a cliche, the promise of life in California has its own unique feel, influenced by the state’s unique growth and the role migration continues to play in its major industries.
As California changes, so do the challenges raised by its mythology, and new artists are emerging to capture and struggle with these evolving issues while still looking critically at the past. On recently released albums, two San Francisco musicians, Jon Bernson of Ray’s Vast Basement and Jake Mann, seek to reclaim these themes, examining issues of development and urbanization, of industry and the little guy, and how these big ideas impact real life.
Starvation Under Orange Trees, Bernson’s latest work as leader of Ray’s Vast Basement, bears the more direct connection to California imagery, as the album evolved from songs Bernson wrote to score a stage production of Of Mice and Men. Over the course of the album, Bernson visits characters from a variety of Steinbeck works, and you should check out his liner notes at Largehearted Boy to really understand his thoughtful approach to undertsanding their thoughts and feelings and incorporating his own as well. Lyrically, Bernson’s tales of isolation, hope and sadness confront the listener with Steinbeck’s continued relevance in modern California. Musically, the album is a diverse and engaging work featuring performances from a number of talented musicians, including members of The Decemberists and Jolie Holland’s band.
Drawing from his upbringing in the Central Valley, amidst increasing development and urbanization for the agriculturally-driven region, San Francisco’s Jake Mann examines too how industry affect individual lives. On his brand new album, Daytime Ghost, Mann captures tales of isolation and loss in his own powerful and unique way, drawing from professed influences including Pavement and other low-fi indie rock while also incorporating elements of spoken word, classic pop, and moodier sounds. Despite all of the musical twists and turns, though, Mann’s voice and unqiue sound remains commanding throughout.
Most singer-songwriter music falls too far onto one side of the personal-political divide, coming off as either melodramatic or preachy. Bernson and Mann both manage to straddle the divide like experts, telling interesting stories from unique viewpoints. Combine these skills with some great music and you’ve got two new albums that make for great listening.
Catch Jake Mann’s show tomorrow night.
Jake Mann Show
1131 Polk Street, San Francisco Sunday, September 30th, 10PM, $6 cover with The Spires and Salt & Samova
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